The Nabokovian 45 (2000): 48-53

Wittgenstein Echoes in Transparent Things

In 1966, when he was asked by Alfred Appel, Jr. if he had been conscious of the similarities between the language of Zemblan and Wittgenstein's "private language," Nabokov declared his complete ignorance of Wittgenstein's works. He said that he had never heard of his name until the 1950's (Strong Opinions, 70). Biographically, there certainly seems to have been no contact between them. They graduated from Trinity College, but in different fields and in different years. Wittgenstein studied mathematics and philosophy in 1912 and 1913, first as an undergraduate, then as an "advanced student"; he returned to Cambridge and received his Ph.D. in 1929, and became a Fellow of Trinity College in 1930 (Georg Henrik von Wright, "Biographical Sketch," in Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, Oxford UP, 1958, 5-13). Nabokov studied French and Russian at Trinity from October 1919 to June 1922. It was only thirty years after Nabokov left Cambridge that they happened to stay in the same space-time for a short period. Wittgenstein visited Ithaca from late July to October in 1949. He stayed with Norman Malcolm, who taught philosophy at Cornell. At the time, Nabokov lived at 957 East State St., but during late July and August he went to hunt butterflies in Wyoming, and returned to Ithaca by September 4, for the new semester (Brian Boyd, The American Years, 141-43). They both were in Ithaca during September and early October. According to Malcolm, Wittgenstein enjoyed walking with him or his wife in some nearby woods during the first month or six weeks, which tempts us to imagine a chance encounter with Nabokov, though there is no record of any contact (Malcolm, A Memoir, 84).

Nabokov must have had an opportunity to read Wittgenstein after the 1966 interview. In Transparent Things (1972, TT), we find some clues about his acquaintance with Wittgenstein's writings, especially Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921; trans. D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuiness, 1961, TLP). The philosopher's name is actually referred to only once at the end of Ch. 23 of the novel, following the sentence which sounds like a parody of his propositions:

It was either raining or pretending to rain or not raining at all, yet still appearing to rain in a sense that only certain old Northern dialects can either express verbally or not express, but versionize, as it were, through the ghost of a sound produced by a drizzle in a haze of grateful rose shrubs. "Raining in Wittenberg, but not in Wittgenstein." An obscure joke in Tralatitions. (91)

David Rampton explains the joke quoting "Can I say 'bububu' and mean 'if it doesn't rain I shall go for a walk'?" from Philosophical Investigations (1953; trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, 1963, 18e, PI) to treat the problem of the author whose creation depends for its meaning on how others understand it (David Rampton, A Critical Study of the Novels, 172-73). Brian Boyd makes a note to the complicated sentence concerning "raining" before the joke quoting a passage which includes "either raining or not raining" each from TLP and PI in his annotations to TT (Library of America, n. 814-15): "For example, I know nothing about the weather when I know that is either raining or not raining" (TLP, 4.461); "One is inclined to say: 'Either it is raining, or it isn't - how I know, how the information has reached me, is another matter.' But then let us put the question like this: What do I call 'information that it is raining'? [. . .]" (PL, para 356). It is stimulating that the philosopher often uses "raining" for the problem of information, especially because Hugh seems to fail to receive the message from the ghosts in the shape of rain in the same paragraph as well as in another one preceding it (W. W. Rowe, Nabokov's Spectral Dimension, 14). Besides, we can find some other references to Wittgenstein in the novel.

Ch. 24, which follows the joke, has an allusion to the most famous line in TLP. In the short chapter, the narrator, probably Mr. R., reveals how the spirits control their favorite mortals. Then he begins to speculate briefly about life and death, reality and dream, and declares: "Another thing we are not supposed to do is to explain the inexplicable" (93). It sounds as if this dictum were based on the famous conclusion of TLP: "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence" (TLP, 7). Then the narrator of TT quotes a bizarre note from what Hugh's fellow-patient-- who is introduced as "a bad man but a good philosopher," which could be a summary of the personality of Wittgenstein from a certain point of view -- wrote in a kind of diary Hugh kept in the asylums and jails: "It is generally assumed that if man were to establish the fact of survival after death, he would also solve, or be on the way to solving the riddle of Being. Alas, the two problems do not necessarily overlap or blend" (93). On reading this, one cannot help recalling the passage below:

Not only is there no guarantee of the temporal immortality of the human soul, that is to say of its eternal survival after death; but, in any case, this assumption completely fails to accomplish the purpose for which it has always been intended. Or is some riddle solved by my surviving for ever? Is not this eternal life itself as much of a riddle as our present life? The solution of the riddle of life in space and time lies outside space and time. (TLP 6.4312)

In his last letter, Mr. R. describes the condition of human soul in the face of death. Contrary to what he has believed, he does not feel the futility of what he has been particular about, but his sentiments have grown gigantic while all the universe has dwindled. He wishes to write a book, a new bible, about "the triple totality" - "total rejection of all religions ever dreamt up by man and total composure in the face of total death!" - but he cannot: "not merely because a dying man cannot write books but because that particular one would never express in one flash what can only be understood immediately" (84). We could hear again the echo from: "It is clear whatever we can say in advance about the form of all propositions, we must be able to say all at once "(TLP 5.47).

I have pointed out the rather superficial similarities between TT and TLP. I do not presume to clarify by them how Nabokov would estimate Wittgenstein's philosophy or how seriously he was influenced by it. I can only say that because TT is a novel that focuses on trespassing by words the boundaries between life and death, between spaces, times, or reality and writing, it is natural that Wittgenstein, who tried to prove the limitation of what he could explain in TLP, appears in it. As has been pointed out, Nabokov himself hides in Mr. "R," which, if reversed, would stand for the Russian the pronoun "I" (D. Barton Johnson, "Nabokov as Man of Letters: The Alphabetic Motif in His Work," MFS 25, 1979, 407). It is possible that Wittgenstein also hides in "a long German name, in two installments, with a nobiliary particle between castle and crag" (24). If it is, it makes a rare example of Nabokov's sharing his character with another real person. We feel the strange inscrutability in Mr. R.'s last note which corresponds to the special brand of mysticism in TLP. In Tralatitions - another rare title - there may be hidden Tractatus as "a watermark" (70), although nothing is farther from Wittgenstein than Mr. R's "luxuriant and bastard" style (75).

If we try to see the Wittgenstein allusion in more detail, we notice first that "Witt," the name of the mountain resort, which Hugh revisits and where he dies, points to the philosopher. The "parts of philosophical essay in a blue cahier acquired in Geneva," which belonged to a Russian writer who long ago stayed in the very hotel room that is now occupied by Hugh, with a street girl, and which could be seen transparently under the girl's bag, reminds us of Wittgenstein's The Blue Book dictated by him into several notebooks (18). We find "there are no mysteries now" in TT (22), and "The riddle does not exist" in TLP (6.5), but not in the similar context. The theme of colors in TT may reflect Wittgenstein's interest in colors for the problem of limits and understanding. The colors are wrongly remembered in Ch. 2: Hugh remembers the cherry-red shutters of the hotel as apple-green, which is actually the color of a valet's apron; in Ch. 5: the shop girl draws "the green, not brown, curtain open" (14); the delicate variation of shades in Ch. 3: "dyed a dingy lilac" (6), "The bare wood of its tapered end has darkened to plumbeous plum, thus merging in tint with the blunt tip of graphite" (6-7), "we could trace the complicated fate of the shavings, each mauve on one side and tan on the other when fresh" (7); and in Ch. 26: "a glorious towel of the same pale blue as the bedspread," "A bunch of bellflowers and bluebonnets (their different shades having a lovers' quarrel)," "Person's shed tie, which was of a third shade of blue but of another material" (101). The italics found here and there, to which the narrator calls our attention in Ch. 24, "In fact, we depend on italics to an even greater degree than do, [. . .] writers of children's books" (92), could indicate the influence of Wittgenstein, who italicized words profusely.

Lastly, I would like to cite Wittgenstein's last sentences, which could suggest another example of similarity between Nabokov and Wittgenstein in treating rain in the matter of recognition. Two days before his death, Wittgenstein wrote his last note: "Someone who, dreaming, says 'I am dreaming', even if he speaks audibly in doing so, is no more right than if he said in his dream 'it is raining', while it was in fact raining. Even if his dream were actually connected with the noise of the rain" (On Certainty 1969; trans. Denis Paul and G. E. M. Anscombe, para 676). Wittgenstein of course wrote it long after The Gift, and there is no record that he had read Nabokov at all. We know that this is nothing but a coincidence; however, it still allures us to read it as if it paraphrased the last paradoxical words by Alexander Chernyshevsky, who, on his deathbed, is deceived by the sound of dropping water from the flower pots on the upstairs balcony under the cloudless sky. "'Of course there is nothing afterwards.' He sighed, listened to the trickling and drumming outside the window and repeated with extreme distinctness: 'There is nothing. It is as clear as the fact that it is raining'" (The Gift, 312).

Akiko Nakata, Nanzan Junior College, Japan